It is Monday morning, and yet I still find myself checking the standings at Baseball-Reference.com to make sure it is still true - that the Kansas City Royals are in the post-season. Playoffs, not the playoffs, call it what you will, but the Royals are still playing for something meaningful Tuesday, while 20 other teams will be hitting the links.
How did we get here?
I was seven years old when the Royals last reached the post-season, really too young to truly appreciate it. I vaguely remember the voice of Al Michaels over a shot of an astro-turf covered Royals Stadium. I remember the short funny fellow for the Cardinals that did backflips when he ran onto the field. I remember my Korean-born mother yelling "AHN-TAH" at Dane Iorg's game-winning hit, because "AHN-TAH" means "base hit" in Korean. I remember watching the World Series parade on TV from school, and drawing a picture of Bret Saberhagen, because I had just seen him interviewed on "Good Morning America." The Royals had won the World Series, but I thought "so what? The Royals win the World Series every year, don't they?"
Then beloved manager Dick Howser revealed he had a brain tumor. He gamely managed the 1986 All-Star Game, but it would be the last game he ever managed. He died the following summer. The team floundered and underachieved for a few seasons. In 1989 they had a truly great team with star players in their primes - Bo Jackson, Danny Tartabull, Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza. George, Frank, and Willie were still around contributing. Only three teams in baseball had a better record than the Royals, but one sat in the Royals' division - the behemoth Oakland A's who steamrolled their way to a World Championship. There was no Wild Card to bail out the Royals that year, so they spent their fourth consecutive post-season at home. At the time it was the longest playoff drought in franchise history since the club made their first playoff appearances in 1976.
The Royals signed Mark Davis to a lucrative deal and had it blow up in their face. John Schuerholz left for Atlanta. The club finished in sixth place, the lowest they had ever finished. Then they did it again the next season. Herk Robinson decided he had to trade star pitcher Bret Saberhagen, the kid who had won our hearts back in '85 with his magical arm. Worse yet, what the Royals got back was an over-hyped former prospect (Gregg Jefferies), a Major Leaguer who most hated playing Major League Baseball (Kevin McReynolds), and a player who combined the athletic ability of Willie Bloomquist with the durability of Nick Johnson (Keith Miller). They lost 90 games for the first time since 1970.
Mr. Ewing Kauffman knew he was near the end. He wanted one more championship. He spent lavishly on free agents like David Cone, Greg Gagne, Wally Joyner, Mike Boddicker, Kirk Gibson. Then, he passed away. The only owner the franchise had ever known, the only steward the ship had ever seen, the only man that had stood up and volunteered when city leaders had vowed to bring a Major League team back to Kansas City following the loss of the Athletics in 1967, was gone.
And so too was the winning.
The team had one last hurrah in 1994 while Ewing's widow Muriel owned the ballclub. That was a pretty mediocre club that went on one amazing 14-game winning streak and looked like a hot team ready to march into the post-season.
And then the baseball stopped. We never saw how that chapter ended, as baseball's work stoppage cancelled the post-season for the first time in a lifetime. Mrs. K died and the team was run as a non-profit by a Board of Directors headed by Ewing's good friend - David Glass.
Costs had to be cut, that wasn't Glass's fault. The Kauffmans had subsidized the team for years and it was simply unsustainable. David Cone was traded for nothing. Brian McRae was shipped out the next day. Trade rumors swirled around ace pitcher Kevin Appier for years. Hal McRae was let go to make way for a youth movement under Bob Boone. But "Boonieball" didn't work and the franchise suffered three consecutive losing seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Johnny Damon was hailed as the future of the franchise, but Damon and the city of Kansas City never truly embraced each other, and soon he was gone. The club brought in expensive veterans in a vain attempt to show fans they were committed to winning but the Chili Davises, the Jeff Kings, the Dean Palmers, the Jay Bells couldn't lift the team out of their funk. Losing became endemic.
Kevin Appier was finally (mercifully) traded for a pu-pu platter of arms that had either failed or were about to fail for the Royals. New sourpuss manager Tony Muser managed to shred the only decent young arm the Royals had in Jose Rosado, and it seemed as if the club that had built dominant pitching for decades no longer knew what a decent pitcher looked like. Carlos Beltran electrified fans with his play, but from his Rookie of the Year campaign, we were already counting down the days when we knew he would be playing elsewhere. The club stumbled into an amazing offense in 2000 - even in context of the Sillyball Era - yet still lost 85 games thanks to the worst bullpen ever assembled. The Royals, of course, overreacted and dealt their prized possession Johnny Damon for a run-of-the-mill closer in Roberto Hernandez. Now their bullpen was bad AND their offense was bad. They lost 97 games.
Meanwhile, no one wanted to buy the club. Well, at least not for anything more than a few spare nickels. Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt made a bid, but it was barely more than what some of the players were making. Attorney Miles Prentice delighted fans with his energy and enthusiasm, but Major League Baseball didn't like his financing, or his investment group, or he didn't know the secret owner handshake, or something, because they didn't accept his bid. Instead the owner had become the guy known for cost-cutting, David Glass.
And the costs, they continued to be cut. The Royals became notorious for being the team without a presence in Latin America, because it cost too much. They were known as the team for offering college senior draftees a $1,000 "take-it-or-leave-it" bonus. They were known as the team doing things backwards while Billy Beane and his Oakland Athletics were looking forward to the next big thing. In 2002, the Royals lost 100 games for the first time in franchise history.
Royals fans got a brief reprieve in 2003 when the club seemed covered in pixie dust to begin the year. They won an amazing nine games in a row to begin the year and entered May in first place. There was no explicable reason for their success. The pitching was still awful. The hitting wasn't much better. But they believed (¡NOSOTROS CREAMOS!) thanks to the infectious cheerleading of manager Tony Pena. Royals fans, in a catatonic state the last few seasons, were re-animated and LOUD as they cheered on Joe Randa, Ken Harvey, Raul Ibanez, and a motley collection of cast-offs, has-beens, and never-weres. The team slumped to .500 but got hot again in June. They were in first place as late as August 29. Ah, but it all fell apart, just like we all knew it would in the back of our minds, and the Royals finished with 83 wins, a disappointing season for any other team, but an outright miracle here in Kansas City.
And of course, they couldn't capitalize on the success. Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago were brought in as free agents to take the Royals to the next level and flopped harder than a soccer player. Pitchers got hurt. Mike Sweeney got hurt...again. Carlos Beltran inched closer to free agency - so they traded him. The miracle was over. We assumed our rightful spot back in 100-loss territory.
Allard Baird was considered a smart baseball guy who preached on-base percentage but could only manage to shop at the bargain bin for guys like Esteban German, Matt Stairs, and a washed up Doug Mientkiewicz. He recycled arms at a furious rate, collecting dustbin pitchers like Joe Mays, Albie Lopez, Scott Elarton, and Luke Hudson, all in a vain attempt to gain some semblance of a pitching staff. It was about this time that a young man named Will McDonald began blogging about the Royals, mixing in the latest news on Odalis Perez with 19th century poetry and occasionally regaling its few readers with amazing profiles of Royals radio affiliates in exotic cities like Ava, Missouri and Iola, Kansas. "Royals Review" was born, and the losing seemed to fuel it. The Royals lost 100 games in four out of five seasons, a feat so embarrassing that even seemingly absentee owner David Glass said "enough."
He asked for the best and brightest for the job of General Manager and was directed to a young Kansan working in the Braves organization named Dayton Moore. Moore was a scout at heart, instrumental in developing a tremendous pipeline of talent in the Braves organization. He took the job with the stipulation the Royals end their cost-cutting practices. Players were required to pull up their stirrups, hold each other accountable. Moore immediately began making trades. Joey Gathright. Ryan Shealy. Dan Cortes. We didn't know these guys yet, but they were new guys, they were young guys. Things were changing. Fans were cautiously optimistic.
But the losing continued. The Royals had the first overall draft pick for the first time in franchise history and selected the enigmatic Luke Hochevar. Gathright turned out to be a speedy guy who couldn't hit. Ryan Shealy proved to be a AAAA slugger who couldn't stay on the field. Dan Cortes never reached the big leagues in a Royals uniform. Moore spent big money - the largest free agent contract in franchise history - on pitcher Gil Meche, a pitcher with a long history of injury problems. He acquired guys with no history of an ability to get on-base - Mike Jacobs and Jose Guillen. The Royals continued to lose. Dayton Moore asked us to "trust the process."
The pitching was showing signs of turning around. Dayton unearthed Joakim Soria from the remote ballfields in Mexico. Zack Greinke returned from a sabbatical to become the best pitcher in baseball. Meche turned into a pretty good bargain despite his price tag. Egghead Brian Bannister, who seemed to know more about sabermetrics than the man running the club, turned in some nice seasons. Luke Hochevar would mix in a nice performance now and then. For the first time in decades, the Royals had the semblance of a decent pitching staff.
Still, in 2009, the Royals took a step backwards and lost 97 games. Dayton Moore was starting to make baffling moves - hiring an inexperienced manager in Trey Hillman, trading for Yuniesky Betancourt (then re-acquiring him!), shipping prized prospect Alex Gordon back to the minor leagues after a tough start to his career. They lost 95 games. Then 91 games. Then 90 games again. The club was not making any progress. Jeff Francoeur. Jonathan Sanchez. Jason Kendall. Chris Getz. The moves weren't working out. Zack Greinke demanded a trade. Fans were losing patience.
Baseball men said just wait, the minor league system was the best farm system in the history of...whatever. We began to see the fruits of Dayton's labor. Eric Hosmer. Mike Moustakas. Danny Duffy. Greg Holland. Salvador Perez. Then Dayton took two of his prized pupils from that farm system - Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi - and made his biggest gamble yet - trading them for starting pitcher James Shields.
It was a move decried by many, including most everyone on this site. Halfway into the first season of Shields' tenure here, it seemed like a huge mistake. The Royals were 45-51 in late July. Wil Myers was on his way to winning American League Rookie of the Year. Dayton Moore's gamble had backfired. He insisted "there is no reason why this team can't win 15 of their next 20."
And they did.
The Royals went on a terrific run in August and climbed back into the Wild Card race. Their run ultimately petered out - too little, too late, too many teams ahead of them. But it gave Royals fans their first taste of pennant action in several years. And they wanted more.
Dayton went "all in" for the 2014 season with the highest payroll in franchise history, eclipsing $90 million, with lucrative contracts to veterans like Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Omar Infante. The club had rookie Yordano Ventura, who had dazzled us in a few appearances last year with a 100-mph fastball. Danny Duffy was set to return from Tommy John surgery. Fans were again cautiously optimistic.
The team floundered. They had the pitching now, they just couldn't hit their way out of a paper sack. After a brief flirtation with first place in June, the team sank back to .500 where they hovered through July. "Sell!" the fans yelled, demanding the Royals get something for James Shields other than unfulfilled promises. Dayton Moore preached patience and blind optimism. Amazingly, that was rewarded.
A five-game win streak was soon followed up by a stretch where the Royals won 19 of 23 and took over first place. Royals fans packed the K for nationally televised games. Alex Gordon became a dark-horse MVP candidate. The defense was lauded as the best in baseball. The bullpen was marveled over as one of the best in quite a long time. Yordano Ventura became a sensation for his electric arm. And the trade, the one that Dayton Moore had gambled his career over, was praised for being the move that put the Royals over the top. Even as Royals fans packed the stadium, they wondered if it would all fall apart at any time.
The Royals held on, and in front of a strong crowd of Royals fans in Chicago on Friday night, they clinched their first spot in the post-season since I was that seven-year-old boy, since before many of you were born, since Dick Howser was still alive, giddy, running across the turf of Royals Stadium with his hat tucked into his pants, embracing Bret Saberhagen and George Brett.
This is for all the fans who had to endure nearly three decades of disappointment, anger, fear, loathing, resentment, disgust, apathy, and cynicism. This is for the fans that had to endure the empty promises, the bad trades, the free agent busts, the prospects that never panned out.
This for Bret Saberhagen - who never should have been traded. This is for Smilin' Joe Randa, who never lost that grin on his face despite all the losses. This is for Mike Sweeney, one of the greatest hitters in franchise history who was never fully appreciated because he had the audacity to get hurt. This is for Jose Rosado, who's talents were never fully achieved due to overwork. This is for Gil Meche, who turned down the last year of his guaranteed contract to return home, so he wouldn't feel like he was stealing after getting hurt. This is for Kevin Seitzer, who was unceremoniously let go as hitting coach after being credited with helping so many of our young hitters. This is for Bruce Chen, who admirably did what the Royals asked of him and was classy even as he was let go a few weeks from making the playoffs. This is for Frank White, one of the greatest Royals ever who has had a falling out with the organization and will hopefully bury the hatchet for this occasion.
This is for Jermaine Dye and Kevin Appier and Dan Quisenberry and Charlie Leibrandt and Mike Boddicker and Brian Bannister and Bo Jackson and Carlos Beltran and Brian McRae and Mike MacDougal and Mark Gubicza and Mike MacFarlane and Mitch Maier and Jaime Bluma and Jose Lima (RIP) and Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria and Bob Hamelin and Tom Goodwin and Danny Tartabull and Les Norman and Jeff Montgomery and Willie Wilson and Danny Jackson and of course Mr. Royal George Brett. This is for all the Royals who were interesting or amazing or stuck around to be part of our community and just made the last 29 years a bit more tolerable to a Royals fan.
Royals fans climbed through 29 years of shit and came out smelling like a rose on the other side. Enjoy it Kansas City. Drink it up and celebrate like you've never celebrated before. And let's finish this chapter with the greatest ending of all, winning the whole damn thing.